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Kathryn Dawson Headshot

The Price We Pay for "Fair and Balanced" News

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To say I was surprised by the response to my November 2011 essay "How Cable TV Made Me Lose My Religion and My Mother" would be an understatement. In this post I recounted how my mother had been negatively influenced by conservative media forces and how our relationship deteriorated in the last years of her life. While I was deeply touched by the expressions of sympathy I received, the comments also revealed that I was not alone in my experience.

As I read the feedback, I often found myself overwhelmed by the depth of emotion expressed. Sadly, the most often repeated comment came from those who said that because of extremist media influences they had also experienced ruptures in their relationships. Over and over again, I read heartbreaking stories about a parent, a spouse, a sibling, an aunt, uncle, or close friend who began watching Fox News and had dramatically changed. Consequently their relationships had also changed -- and for the worse. In many cases the parties no longer even spoke.

Some suggested that those of us who had lost or damaged relationships because of Fox News should form a support group. That's probably not a bad idea. But, while it might be cathartic for those still processing or grieving the loss of relationships, I still find myself asking what could be done to prevent these rifts from happening in the first place. What can I do? What can we do?

Many responders suggested that the discussion of politics and religion should be avoided at all costs. That proverbial wisdom might work for some, but it could never have worked for my mother and me. Politics and religion were too important to us. Furthermore, I felt strongly that I wouldn't be true to myself or protective of her if I allowed some of her thinking to go unchallenged. For example, when she told me of her plan to purchase a freeze-dried food kit touted by Glenn Beck at a price tag of over $1,000 in preparation for some vague imminent global catastrophe, how could I not speak up? This type of fear mongering (and profiteering), particularly when directed at the elderly and most vulnerable, is criminal in my opinion. I could not bear to see my mother endure unnecessary stress based on lies.

In her way, she was equally protective of me, believing that I had been led astray by my education and exposure to a "secular" world. My liberal views were of great concern to her. As my mother, she wanted nothing more than my safety, security, and happiness. I have no doubt she felt that I was dreadfully unprepared for what might lie ahead, and she could not in good conscience hold her tongue when it came to beliefs she felt would lead me to ruin.

I like to think this was a rather healthy aspect of our relationship. Had we not cared deeply for one another, we wouldn't have bothered to belabor our points of view. While some readers accused me of lacking respect for my mother, I would counter that it would have been disrespectful not to say what I truly thought. She wasn't that fragile. Avoiding the issues that divided us would have shown disrespect for her intelligence.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 24-hour news cycle has led to the demise of countless relationships, but I don't think change is likely. With so much time to fill and ratings at stake, network executives have sought new tactics to attract and keep viewers. What concerns me most is the psychological trickery employed that engenders a false sense of intimacy. Cleaning out my mother's house I came across numerous handwritten prayer lists where she listed under the category of "enemies" Obama, Clintons, Kennedy, Pelosi and Reid. Under "leaders" she listed Rush, Glenn, Bill, Michelle, Sarah, and Sean. Her "enemies" were all elected officials addressed by last name only, while her "leaders" were media figures with whom she was on a first name basis.

This is one of the reasons Fox News consistently receives such high ratings. They know how to play on viewers' need for emotional intimacy. Such terms as Fox and Friends are used to great effect while the network simultaneously injects ever-increasing levels of conflict and fear. The threshold for truth is lowered in the process. Unfortunately, Fox has many faithful viewers who believe anything the network says. So, getting rid of this cast of characters any time soon is an unlikely solution to the problem.

If our news organizations were required, or at least held accountable to verify facts and present them without bias, much of the division and strife between the Left and the Right would likely diminish. And perhaps we can begin to demand this with our viewing habits. For example, while I adore Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the creative (and hilarious) way they champion Left-leaning political views, I find National Public Radio and public television the most thorough and least emotionally charged news sources available.

So what is the answer? Do we form support groups and mourn our lost connections and the possible demise of our society due to the influence of sensational news organizations? Do we stop talking to our loved ones about our most important ideas and beliefs? Do we head to the streets to protest the media outlets that have the power to do so much damage to us? While there is no one solution for everyone, I maintain that continuing to communicate is our best way forward. And this must be done in a spirit of respect and care, rather than one-upmanship. I do not claim that this will be easy or ultimately effective. We may have to say our peace and let it go without ever convincing the other party of our "rightness." But that's okay. That type of give and take has been the essence of our democracy for over 200 years, and with a little luck, it will continue to be so.